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Winter fast approaching, leaders accelerate efforts to relieve Rio Grande's homeless

SALT LAKE CITY — Waking from her slumber under a tree in Pioneer Park Wednesday morning, Tayeah Johnson lit a joint just as a Salt Lake police bike patrol rounded the corner.

The officers cited the 28-year-old for possession of Spice, leaving her with a ticket that she crumpled in her hand.

"It's nothing new," Johnson said, laughing as the cops cycled away. She expected the ticket would amount to a $300 fine, and she'd be taken to jail when she didn't pay it, only to be released later on.

The misdemeanor was the least of her worries that day.

Her bare feet were blackened with dirt. Half of her head was shaven. She wrapped herself in a battered blanket. She fretted about finding food and a safe place to sleep, with no family to help her.

Johnson's face grew somber when she told of how she's been living on the streets of Salt Lake City for two months, fleeing her downtown home after her boyfriend beat her. She feared returning to a shelter, where she said she was raped in one of the showers.

Nightmares haunt her when she sleeps indoors, Johnson said, so she worries about what she's going to do when winter comes.

"They got so bad, so I came out here. I won't go home. I'd just rather be here," she said, tears rolling down her face. "It's so hard. It's like I have no choice but to do drugs or anything to just not think about this. I don't want to be like this. I just don't know how not to be like this."

Johnson was among the hundreds who camped in the Rio Grande District on Tuesday night. A street over from Pioneer Park, encampments packed the median of 500 West, where the smell of Spice, marijuana and cigarette smoke mixed with the stench of human waste.

By 10 a.m. Wednesday, a Salt Lake County Health Department cleanup truck was making its weekly rounds, a worker forcing campers to break down their sites, move along or lose their belongings. The worker, accompanied by police, picked up needles, drug canisters and human excrement from the median's muddied grasses.

But as soon as the health department truck left the area, campers began trickling back.

State, county and city officials agree that the Rio Grande area has reached crisis levels, with no silver-bullet solution in sight.

"I've been discouraged by the situation for a long time," Salt Lake City Councilman Derek Kitchen said this week.

The situation reached a climax Thursday when Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County leadership enacted a secretly planned operation that had been in the works since spring.

Not 12 hours later, city leaders pushed forward with a plan to address homelessness with short- and long-term solutions, hoping to prep for fast-approaching winter and prevent another crisis next summer.

Operation Diversion

In an attempt to break from the norm of slapping drug users with citations while leaving many without treatment, about 100 police officers swarmed the Rio Grande neighborhood early Thursday in a coordinated effort to target drug dealing and addiction.

Operation Diversion plucked 51 drug users and dealers from the streets. Of those arrested, nine were sent straight to jail and one was hospitalized. The rest were taken to an assessment center where they were given a choice to either accept treatment or be charged and sent to jail, where open beds waited for them.

Eleven chose jail, and 30 agreed to enter treatment. Within 12 hours, however, 10 walked away from treatment to instead face criminal charges.

City and county leaders, calling the operation an "experiment," didn't expect it to have 100 percent success, but they were eager to start learning from what they hope will create a new current for criminal justice and substance abuse treatment. Several more raids are planned to eventually bring 150 into treatment over the next six months.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said it was "predictable but still disappointing" that one-third of those eligible for treatment decided against it, but the operation is at least a starting point.

"The larger question is: How do we get them back into treatment? Those who are in treatment, how do we keep them there?" McAdams said. "These are the questions we have to ask ourselves and be patient enough to realize it takes time to figure out."

Operation Diversion is costing the county $1.2 million in treatment and criminal prosecution costs, McAdams said, acknowledging that 150 is a "drop in the bucket" when considering Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown's estimation that 2,000 troubled people live in the Rio Grande area.

But for 150 people, is $1.2 million worth it?

"What other option do we have?" Kitchen asked. "Yes, it's a drop in the bucket, but a drop is better than no drop. We have to change the way we do things in this neighborhood."

Shelter sites

Even as Operation Diversion's tallies were still coming in Friday morning, city efforts to mitigate homelessness for the short and long term were underway.

The Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Jackie Biskupski spent the morning solving a stalemate over the size and number of homeless shelters that will be built over the next two years.

Instead of building two new resource centers with 250 beds each, city leaders are now moving forward with a plan to build four shelters with no more than 150 beds each. The deadline for site selection is Oct. 10.

The City Council also committed to quickly increase the city's supply of affordable housing — a focus of the its next meeting on Oct. 4 — as well as work on a short-term plan to help shelter those overflowing from at-capacity homeless shelters in time for winter. City leaders and stakeholders have set a deadline to come up with an immediate plan by Oct. 25.

Kitchen said a short-term remedy could be identifying city-owned properties that can be used on "an emergency basis" to address overflow onto 500 West.

"The council has indicated we are willing to fund whatever is necessary in order to divert the crisis," Kitchen said.

Now, with Operation Diversion and efforts to address homeless resources in place, can Salt Lake City expect a better situation next summer?

McAdams, Biskupski, Brown and Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder all say they hope so, though that hinges on continued funding. The $1.2 million for Operation Diversion came from the county's Division of Behavioral Health Services' operating reserves — one-time revenue.

McAdams said he has spoken to state lawmakers about the possibility of spending $30 million in state money set aside to cover the state's portion of a legislatively approved Medicaid expansion initiative for chronically homeless and people finding themselves in and out of the justice system.

In the meantime, Brown pleaded with the public to be "patient with us," acknowledging that over the past five years, each summer brings "increasingly worse" conditions to Rio Grande.

"Is tomorrow going to look like a brand new day? No," Brown said. "But what we're doing now, we're defining the process of the future. What we learn today can be incorporated into how we do business tomorrow."

Contributing: Marjorie Cortez

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1